Don’t get broadsided by the car rental industry’s double standards

Vladitto/Shutterstock
Vladitto/Shutterstock

Ric Vesely knows about the car rental industry’s double standards. When he returned his Dollar Rent a Car vehicle in Minneapolis recently, an employee asked him a strange question: Did he have a receipt for his gasoline purchase?

Vesely, an engineer who was visiting from Colorado, hadn’t bought Dollar’s pricey fuel-purchase option, agreeing instead to return the vehicle with a full tank. He said he didn’t have a receipt, but that it didn’t matter — the needle on the gas gauge pointed to “full.”

“The employee became angry with me and told me that it was buried in the fine print on the contract I had signed,” he remembers. “He then proceeded to interrogate me on where I had purchased the gasoline.”

Then Vesely did something he regretted. He told the employee he’d just filled up the tank.

“I had actually purchased gas about 15 miles away,” he says. “Now I feel like a thief.”

Maybe he shouldn’t. Because if the tables were turned, the car rental company would apply a completely different set of standards to itself.

What do I mean? Well, if a ding or dent is discovered on Vesely’s vehicle after he returned it, a car rental company would send him a bill and insist that he settle up immediately. Failure to do so could get him reported to a collection agency, damage his credit score and land him on a car rental blacklist. Sometimes, the agency doesn’t even bother sharing a picture of the alleged damage. It just sends the bill.

If a customer has the audacity to ask for evidence of the damage, the response is often: We don’t have to prove anything. The agency, or an outside company hired to process the damage claim, will just re-send the bill wrapped in an even more threatening letter.

Pay up — or else.

I’m working a case right now where there are no photos of the damage, no real proof the customer harmed the car in any way. Mike Scher, a reader from Miami, returned his Dollar rental recently and an associate gave him a “clean” return form that indicated the car was in good condition. “We were shocked to receive a very aggressive claim for over $700 in damages,” he says.

Scher sent a letter back, saying he’d returned the vehicle unharmed.

“They send more and more aggressive notices and threatened us with legal action,” he says. “It’s so unfair.”

I’ve had conversations with auto rental executives who say they don’t need to show you anything. If you were the last person to rent the vehicle, you’re on the hook for whatever damage they want to charge you or your insurance company. You just have to take them at their word.

Yet when it comes to a tank of gas, car rental agencies typically won’t take us at our word. They can demand proof that we filled up the tank. They don’t even trust their own cars to tell them the tank is full.

It’s absurd. At the very least, car rental companies ought to conduct a thorough inspection when you return a car, documenting any damage. A driver should also acknowledge any problems in writing before leaving the parking lot. Any “damage” discovered after the return should be covered by the car rental company. After all, who’s to say the car wasn’t dented while on the lot?

The lesson is obvious. Take pictures of your car, pre- and post-rental. Keep them for at least six months. You may need the proof that you didn’t do it.

Vesely’s story has a happy ending. Overcome with guilt, he contacted Dollar and told the truth. “I came clean,” he says, sending the company an email with the actual location of the gas station.

To its credit, the company let him off the hook.

“With regards to a refueling fee,” Dollar wrote back, “at this time, we do not show that there is any intention by the location to charge for fuel.”

Should car rental companies be allowed to charge us for damages that are not documented?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bill___A

    So if they take it to court, they have to prove and substantiate the damages, don’t they? I always have photos before and after, usually more than a dozen. I think everyone should do that.

    On the fuel issue, I fill the car up and make sure it is quite full when returned. I’ve never had a problem, but if I ran into someone giving me trouble, I would suggest that we establish without a doubt whether there is fuel in that tank and how much. They can come with me to the gas station, we put the nozzle in and see how long till it “pops” and go from there.

    Having a receipt from a nearby gas station is a pointless exercise since there is nothing to make sure you filled it up anyways. Only that you put “some quantity” of gas in at that location. I remember a vehicle dealership had an “in House” location of Budget which specified you must produce a fuel receipt from within one mile of the dealership. Guess how much business budget got? Rule number one is don’t deal with idiots or people who deal with idiots.

    I don’t know where these idiots are but at the same time, you aren’t supposed to fill up the car 15 miles away either. However, that $4 worth of gas will undoubtedly be paid for by the next renter.

    Come to think of it, I did run into a situation about 18 years ago at Hertz National Airport Washington DC where the car was not full and the fellow at the check out refused to accurately depict the fuel level. I contested him, he didn’t budge. I went back to the car rental agency office, got it marked properly (he was trying to mark it as more gas than there was, it wasn’t full). When I left again, he pulled attitude on me, so I then called Hertz’s head office and filed a complaint about him. I was rational and truthful and didn’t ask for anything from Hertz in return. I expect it didn’t bode well for him.

    I would have not taken the car had their been an issue where they didn’t fix it. I would have gone to the competition across the street.

    Quite frankly, anyone that ticks me off and doesn’t fix it pays in lost business for years.

  • http://www.bentleychauffeur.biz/ James Brown

    Informative information that you have shared.I got to know many information.Thanks for the share.

  • technomage1

    If the gas gauge shows full, that should be all that is required to avoid such fees. The problem is that gas pumps cut off as full at different levels. Additionally, different makes/models of cars take different levels of top off gas ( gas pumped after the initial cut off, usually to get the purchase to an even dollar amount). Some take virtually none, others can take several gallons.

    In the case detailed above, if the customer had topped off his tank, even 15 miles out, the car would have still been legitimately full when returned.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Maybe one of the other attorneys can give more specifics on this. My understanding is that a collection agency cannot report a disputed debt unless it originates from an extension of credit by a financial institution.

    Whenever I’ve sent a letter to a collection agency informing them that my client disputes a debt and instructing them not to report the debt they have always complied.

    Editted: Upon further reflection, I don’t think the extension of credit has to be by a financial institution.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I encountered this at a Thrifty location at the Pensacola, FL airport. The counter person specifically told me I had to have a reciept for filling the tank. They specified a radius of 5 miles, which isn’t too bad.

    When I returned the car, the girl never even looked at the reciept. I don’t remember if they kept the reciept or I did. I made sure to use a CC for the gas so my statement would serve as an alternate reciept, and I remember taking a photo of the reciept in case they “lost” it. I will say I’ve rented from this location a half dozen times and never had an issue.

  • EdB

    Well, if they are wanting a receipt that showing I filled up the car, then I should be able to drive the car to the nearest gas station after renting and fill the tank up and deduct the cost of the fuel to “fill” up the full car.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    “I’ve had conversations with auto rental executives who say they don’t
    need to show you anything. If you were the last person to rent the
    vehicle, you’re on the hook for whatever damage they want to charge you
    or your insurance company. You just have to take them at their word.”

    A certified letter from your attorney will usually get that nonsense to go away. Like Bill said, they can tell you they don’t have to show you proof, but they’ll have to dig it up eventually. Granted, you may still end up on that particular company’s rental blacklist – but if said company is willing to either falsify a damage claim or refuse to provide you evidence of your damage, do you really want to do business with that company in the future anyway?

  • emanon256

    I voted no on this one, they do need to prove the damage no questions asked.

    But as far as the gas receipt, I do not fault the car rental company for asking for it. In fact, I wish they did all the time, I fault them for not asking. Almost every car I have owned, rented, etc, goes at least 50 miles, often closer to 100 while the needle is still at Full. Then it start dropping. So the needle being on “F” does not mean the tank is full. And how hard is it to keep a receipt? Just stick it in your wallet. If the pump doesn’t print, go inside. In my 45+ rentals a year for many years I have only had to go inside and ask for a receipt once.

    This really irks me, as at least 10 times a year, I pick up my rental car, and within 10 miles or so the needle starts dropping. Then when I fill it at the end of the week after only driving 60 miles total, the car takes 6 or so gallons of gas, when most weeks its takes 2 to 3 for the same mileage, in the same car type. That means someone drove the car between 50 and 100 miles, the needle was still on full, so they returned it without getting gas.

    PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. You are not pulling a fast one on the rental car company, you are screwing the next customer.

  • DavidYoung2

    You hit the nail on the head. Fueling up is for the protection of the NEXT customer — not the rental agency. Besides, I always keep the receipt to (a) balance my bank account, (b) check against the credit card statement and/or (c) document expenses for reimbursement from my employer. Really, why NOT keep the receipt? This story just gives you another reason to do so.

  • emanon256

    Very good point, I keep mine for the same reasons, as well as one additional reason. One time about a month after renting from a Hertz in Hawaii, they charged my card $80 and when I called the location I rented it from, they said it was for refueling the car. I told them I fueled it and they said their employee reported that it was returned empty and expensed a full tank of gas at the local gas station to refuel it. I was able to scan and send them the receipt as proof and they refunded the charge. They even called me after they got it and asked me if I showed it to the receipt to the employee and I told them I did and they said this has been a re-occurring problem with this employee and they would deal with it and they apologized again.

  • sirwired

    It still boggles my mind that they can give you a clean return receipt, and then turn around later to go after you for damages. And to keep the crap from appearing on your credit report, you’ll need to spend way more than what it’ll cost you to just pay up. You’d probably win if you went to small-claims court, but it’s not worth the travel to the appropriate jurisdiction, and both you and the rental agency know it.

    This sounds like an area ripe for regulation by the FTC, if they can come up with a way to shoehorn it into their authorizing legislation.

  • sirwired

    A debt is a debt. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bank, doctor’s office, municipal parking authority, dentist, mechanic, video rental store, mail-order company, tax agency, collection agency, whatever. It’s all fodder for your credit report. The law doesn’t specify which sources can report to credit bureaus. The law merely regulates dispute mechanisms, and your rights in obtaining copies of the information.

  • sirwired

    If you went to court, they absolutely would have to prove the damages. Unfortunately, the proper jurisdiction for the case would be the location it was rented. Few people are going to fly back in from out of town to attend a court hearing.

  • Bill___A

    I hope I am not in a position to have to make that decision. However, I would tend to go to some extra trouble to make sure they didn’t win.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Sure, a letter on an attorney’s letterhead should put a stop to that, but unless you have an attorney friend, the cost of that letter could be prohibitive, and certainly more than the fuel charge. And they know it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    “a debt is a debit”

    But that’s the rub. Just because I say you owe me money doesn’t make it so. If I can ding your credit report unilaterally, that puts me in a million times stronger position than you.
    Like I said, none of my clients had their credit report dinged by collection agencies.

  • sirwired

    Yes, it most certainly does put the alleged creditor in a stronger position than the alleged debtor. To top it off, there are no financial or legal penalties for anybody for reporting false information, as long disputes are handled within the law’s deadlines.

    Depending on how much the collection agency paid for the debt, and the size of the debt, they often will save quite a bit of money by just letting it go (especially if the letter comes from an attorney), which is why your dispute letters work. If they wish to assert the debt’s validity, there’s an awful lot of paperwork to file under very strict deadlines.

    That said, I imagine that if a single source gets a relatively high number of disputes resulting in an item deletion, a credit bureau will stop accepting reports from that source.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s not accurate. Purposely reporting fraudulent information carriers civil penalties, $1000 statutory damages and compensatory damages if proven.

    The collection agencies I deal with relate to matters where tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are in dispute. They don’t go away merely because they get a letter from me. But they have always complied and not reported the debt upon receiving my letters, though the matter drags on for months and may ultimately end in litigation.

    Additionally, its not a lot of paperwork to valid a debt. Its what collections agencies routinely do.

  • 1pop

    well, Chris, now you know that you have ten readers who work for car rental agencies!

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    Sorry, should have been a little clearer on what I meant. No, I would not bother doing this for a $20 fuel charge. I was more going with bogus damage claims. There the dollar amounts, either with the damage claim itself or increased insurance premiums for making a claim, could possibly make it worth your while to get an attorney involved.

  • Daddydo

    I would have told the returning agent to go purchase a colon prep kit. The car rental companies fill the car with the key on until “F” is hit, leaving room for 2-3 more gallons. Those are the cars that you get when you rent. I fill up immediately when leaving the airport and demand credit if I put more than 2 gallons into the car. That is the first in 50 years of working in 10 different fields in this industry, that I have ever heard of prove your fill-up. Always fight the rental companies. Give back to them that give to you. File against the car companies in small claims court for harassment, lost of time, and cost of filing. They are usually only 1 step higher than the airline’s and cruise line’s service quality, from the deepest depth of the oceans.

  • Grant Ritchie

    “Go purchase a colon prep kit”? What a wonderful way of telling someone to go “F” themselves. I’m gonna remember that one. Thanks, Geoffrey! :-)

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    what a waste of time, going over a car with fine detail.
    Often cars we hire in winter in snow regions get covered in mud.
    Lots of damage/scratches etc. could easily be covered by mud. So reantal car co. have to cover themselves.
    A quick walk around the car when you return it, with rental car guy, should satisfy everyone.
    Time is money & who wants to go digging into wallet for a petrol receipt.
    Even in USA where wages are very low cf. eg. Australia, it still costs money to employ a poor “mexican” to do all this. In other words, do you want to pay more for your car hire ?
    Be very careful what you wish for.
    Also … Cars should have far more accurate fuel gauges. Why is it that fuel gauges on most cars are slow to go to 1/2 full, but then quickly go to empty.
    It’s the 21st century with 19th century technology.

  • Joseph Blasi

    re-occurring problem with this employee sounds like other stores where they say stuff like that high pressure hard sale is not our rules.

    Sounds like a scam where they are fast to take it off for people who do check there bills.

  • mythsayer

    I used to do collections law… I can answer this one. If you dispute a debt within 30 days of the original letter, they can still report the debt but they have to list it as disputed. It still stays on for the 7 years still, though. If you want it entirely off you have to have the credit bureau open an investigation and if they decide the debt is invalid, the bureau can remove it. This wouldn’t likely happen with a regular debt, though (you’d have to have some proof it’s not valid, like if you can show the debt was paid and they won’t list it as having been paid, the bureau will fix it).

  • mythsayer

    It’s actually a huge pain to validate debts… most agencies just don’t have good paperwork. I used to almost cry when I got a letter asking for a real validation because here I am trying to collect this debt and the paperwork is massively sparse. That’s why I got out of debt collection… it’s sort of bottom feeder law. I do real property now… from title companies… much better, lol.

    Anyway, that’s the secret to disputing debts… FORCE THEM TO VALIDATE WITH MORE THAN JUST A BASIC STATEMENT. They will try to do this… just send a “bill.” That’s when you write back and yell at them and say you want an itemized document. At least half the time, the agency won’t have it. If it’s a debt buyer, they probably won’t have it like 75% percent of the time.

  • Nigel Appleby

    About 15 years ago we had a problem with an appliance/electronics store where they billed us for a fridge/freezer we changed our minds about and din’t get. It took a letter from our lawyer to resolve the matter, we didn’t have to pay because he billed the store and they paid the lawyer. I would love to have seen the letter but our main concern was that it was fixed. A couple of years later the same store tried to do the same thing with a TV, all it took this time was a question “do you want us to see our lawyer about this?” Just the question was enough. I didn’t go it any of their stores again for at least ten years and only now, very reluctantly, since they were bought out.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Hi Shannon

    Those aren’t the types of debts I’m talking about. More along the unliquidated types. For exampe, I rear end you damaging your car. The repair bill is $500 and you get a rental car for $100 for the duration of the repair. I pay the $500 but refuse to pay the $100. You can’t put the $100 on my credit report. Can you?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I stand corrected. I was speaking behind a friend who owned a collections agency ( Not an attorney).

  • BobChi

    I think a full fuel tank and damage are two quite separate issues. The fuel gauge will show “full” for a while after it’s filled up, and I think everyone knows that. Could it be that some renters actually fill up about 30-50 miles before turning in the car, knowing it will be hard to tell? I’m not sure what good a receipt does, though, for that matter. How can they tell if you actually filled the tank completely when you bought the gas, or might have done some more driving after the gas purchase close to the rental location? On the other hand, some people don’t routinely save receipts. The alert that it will be requested should not be buried in fine print but should be mentioned orally at the time of rental as well.

  • pauletteb

    Not sure if they’re merely trolls or car rental company goons, but their votes in these polls always make me laugh.

  • rwm

    The problem is people abusing the system. They know that the gauge will still read full, even after driving 40 miles after filling up. Almost every time I rent a car (and I rent often, weekly), the gas gauge drops down to 1/8 below full when I am only 10 miles out from the airport. I drive 40 miles and end up putting in 4 gallons of gas when I return the car. Now, how is that fair to me?

  • qwerty78

    What does the receipt prove? You fill up Monday morning. You use half a tank. One mile from the rental agency you “fill up” with X # of gallons. Your receipt will show X # of gallons, not capacity # of gallons. The receipt only proves you bought SOME gas one mile ago.

  • TmM

    The Chevy Aveo is one of the worst as it causes most gas pumps to auto shut-off at 3/4 tankful. By “topping off,” at least another 2-3 gallons can be added. It wasn’t just one particular car because another rental had the exact same problem. Hopefully the replacement Sonic doesn’t have that issue.

  • Linda

    Over a work career of 25 years with 2 different employers, I was not a terribly frequent traveler or car renter (2-3 times a year), but when I did rent I was required to use National Car Rental by both employers. After I retired I still used them for personal trips. I never had a problem of any kind with them, and of all the horror stories I’ve read in this and other forums I don’t think I’ve ever heard them mentioned. Just an FYI.

  • Charlie

    I agree the gauge isn’t adequate. I rented a truck and not only did they want a receipt they insisted it had to be from a specific gas station.. across the street.

    And when I got a service loaner (rental agreement filled out, but $0 rental) and chose to return it 1/8th down and pay the fees (the gas station on the way had a line 6 cars deep and the penalty was only $1 extra per gallon) they went by the gas gauge to decide how much to bill me.

  • James Reynolds

    I think the burden of proof should be on the rental car company, a simple picture of the car from all angles before release is all that is needed. I get the majority of myrental cars in Augusta, GA. With all the scams and hidden charges it is important to build a trusting relationship with your rental car lot. Has anyone every been a victim of hidden charges?